Thursday, January 22, 2009

Film Review: Alone In The Dark

Okay kids, it's November 1982, and you're lining up to see Friday the 13th part 3 for the seventh time when you notice the new poster. "Holy shit", you exclaim, "another slasher arrives on Friday!". There's a faceless lone axeman approaching a house surrounded by woods under a full moon, an awesome tagline, and it's got frickin' Doctor Loomis from "Halloween"! This has GOT to be an instant classic, right? Well it is, but not the way you thought it would be. Writer/Director Jack Sholder's "Alone in the Dark" was a slasher, I guess, but it broke a hell of a lot of the usual rules; both heroes and villains were very well developed characters with (dare I say) their own personalities and quirks, there is only one teenagers in peril scene (but it's a doozy), and there's no masked villain with childhood trauma (there's actually no axe and no woods either, despite the great poster). Instead you get 4, count 'em, 4 psychopaths, each with their own brand of insanity. And for the icing on the cake, the parallels to one of the greatest movies of all time, S.F. Brownrigg's 1973 shocker "Don't Look in the Basement", are blatantly obvious and hopefully intentional.

Dr. Leo Bain (Donald Pleasence, even more deranged and spaced out than in the "Halloween" movies) oversees "The Haven", a mental institution with a seriously laidback attitude towards potentially dangerous situations. For instance, the good doctor lets a delusional woman act as receptionist (shades of the great Annabelle Weenick in DLITB), he gives matches to an unstable pyromaniac, who immediately starts a bonfire (just as Dr. Stephens unwisely gives Judge Gene Ross an axe in DLITB), and to top it all off, Dr. Bain stuffs his fancy pipe with what he calls "Turkish Sensimilla" (I used to be a major connoisseur, but I've never heard of that one). The patients cannot be called "patients" or "inmates"; they are termed "voyagers". And off we go on their trip...

The only locked ward is the third floor, which houses just 4 voyagers. Frank Hawkes (Jack Palance, still a good 9 years away from his mainstream return in "City Slickers") is an ex-POW powderkeg who stares out the window looking demonically intense (a la soldier Hugh Feagin in DLITB). Ronald "Fatty" Elster (the late Erland Van Lidth, the opera singing baddie in "The Running Man") is a 6'6'' 300 pound pedophile with a slightly retarded expression and the demeanor of a child (parallels of "final boy" Sam in DLITB). Then there's Skaggs (aka "The Bleeder"), a rapo who gets nosebleeds every time he strangles a victim; he hides his face against the wall and we never see it. To save the best for last, there's Byron "Preacher" Sutcliff (Martin Landau, in possibly his greatest performance EVER), a religious zealot and also the aforementioned pyro. The film's opening scene, a dream sequence where Landau imagines himself in a fiery diner being split from crotch to craw by a grinning Pleasence (dressed hilariously as a short-order fry cook with a huge cleaver) is priceless.

As in "Don't Look in the Basement", the story starts when a new employee begins at the sanitarium. Instead of a cute nurse, it's bleeding heart liberal Dr. Dan Potter (then unknown Dwight Schultz, who would go on to fame in 1983 as "Howling Mad" Murdock on "The A Team"), who has moved into town with his equally liberal wife Nell (stage actress Deborah Hedwall), his smart aleck 10 year old daughter Lyla (Elizabeth Ward, who actually won a Best Actress award for this role at the "Catalonian International Film Festival" and would go on to play the Tracey Gold role in the pilot for "Growing Pains"; who says I don't give out awesome trivia?), and his punk rockin' younger sister Toni (Lee Taylor-Allen), who is recovering from some sort of mental breakdown. Unfortunately things are not great at work: the paranoid Sgt Hawkes has decided that Dr. Potter has killed off his predecessor Dr. Merton, and he's convinced the other 3 psychos that it's true. Potter shrugs it off despite the warnings of the 3rd floor attendant, who has heard the freaks planning to murder their new doc.

The action begins in an embarrassing scene where Toni drags Dr. and Mrs. Potter off to a punk rock club to see The Sic F*cks (an actual band from NYC, who were really more Rocky Horror Picture Show than true punk rock). With the faux-slamdancing, wacky punkers, and the band singing "Chop Up Your Mother", it's very reminiscent of those goofy episodes of "CHIPS" and "Quincy" from the same year which warned against the dangers of the punk subculture. I guess Sholder was trying to show how the crazies are everywhere, not just in the loony bin, but the whole thing comes off as forced and goofy, like watching my Dad air guitar to Ted Nugent.
Anyway, while they're at the club a citywide blackout occurs, which results in not only massive looting and riots, but also the deactivation of The Haven's electric 3rd floor doors. The 4 Voyagers take off, killing their attendant and carjacking a doctor just arriving for the night shift (as in "Halloween"). They head into town and go to a looted sporting goods store for new duds and weapons. In a scene hotly debated by horror mavens, The Bleeder emerges wearing a hockey mask, rips out a guy's heart with a spear, and promptly vanishes into the night, never to be seen again (or so we think). Who came first, The Bleeder or Jason? "Friday part 3" was released in August of 82 and "Alone in the Dark" in November, but I'd have to call it a total coincidence, as they were probably written and filmed around the same time and for different studios. Unless there was corporate spying going on between New Line (AITD) and Paramount (F13), which I doubt, it's gotta be synchronicity.

The next day, Potter and Bain seem unconcerned about the escape, which of course is not a good thing. It's not explained how they got his address, but after randomly running down a bike messenger (in an unfortunately bloodless scene saved by Palance's contorted expressions behind the wheel), the trio show up at the Potters'. In another showstopping moment by Landau, he rings the doorbell posing as a mailman (uniform and all) with a telegraph for the doctor. Grinning insanely and twitching all over, he ogles the wife and sister while questioning them about the doctor's whereabouts. As this is a slasher flick (sorta), they don't even ask him where the telegram is, or question why he disappears into an ominous black van. Despite the ongoing blackout, Toni once again drags off her sister-in-law, this time to a Nuclear Disarmament rally (more total early 80s action), where they are promptly jailed. Back home, little Lyla arrives home from school to find an empty house, except for the drooling "Fatty" Elster, who stammers out that he's her new babysitter. She accepts this, but rebukes him when he awkwardly tries to hold her hand. This tense scene is especially excellent, and both actors do a great job; you honestly don't know what's going to happen when the director cuts away to Dr. Potter at work.

Potter has heard from his wife and sister at the jailhouse, and he calls the real babysitter, the oddly monickered Bunky (smokin' blonde Carol Levy, who would go on to star in Radley Metzger's "The Princess and the Call Girl" and "Les Fantasmes de Miss Jones"), to see if she can watch Lyla. Here's where the REAL stereotypical slasher scene comes in. Bunky finds Lyla alone and asleep so she calls her boyfriend Billy to come over. When he arrives she is naturally in a state of undress and they start going at it, with some ace topless work from Levy. I won't spoil it (for once), but major slashage ensues.

The ladies are bailed out from jail and arrive home with Tom Smith, a guy Toni hooked up with in jail (he gave them his space in line for the phone so they invited him for dinner, despite the fact that they know 4 psychos with a vendetta against the head of their household are on the loose). Doc Potter comes home, Lyla wakes up, a Detective Burnett arrives (who they also invite for dinner!), and it's SIEGE TIME! Arrows fly through windows and into chests, dead bodies come flying out of nowhere in typical slasher fashion, fires get lit, doors get barricaded; total "Night of the Living Dead" action. Dr. Bain shows up in his Cooper and tries to calm the voyagers down, but it's too late. When he tells Preacher "Thou Shalt Not Kill", Landau counters with "Vengeance is Mine!". And of course "The Bleeder" shows up and finally reveals his face in a plot twist you could see a mile away. All in all, some good ultraviolence, decent gore, and a great freakout scene by the already unstable Toni. In the film's greatest moment, when Nell gives Toni a valium in the midst of the chaos (as in medicating a mental patient), little Lyla the wiseacre says, "Mom, I think I could use a valium!". Her father's expression at that little outburst is also worth the price of admission. Tom Savini picked up a paycheck as well, not for the gore, but for creating a monster which Toni hallucinates before getting the lifesaving benzo.

"Alone in the Dark" is a great little movie. ALL of the actors are superb, which you can't say for most 80s American-made horror films. The humor and social commentary is simple, subtle, and very much of the time, but due to the histrionics of Pleasence, Palance, and Landau it's still an enjoyable ride today. The first time I remember being REALLY scared by a movie was in 1973, when as a 7 year old I saw Palance in the TV Movie "Dracula"; watching "Alone in the Dark" the other night brought that right back when Frank Hawkes started giving Doc Potter the evil eye in the day room.

As one final note, all this S.F. Brownrigg talk leads me to some shameless promotion. Fellow Blood Farmer David Szulkin, author of the seminal "Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left: The Making of a Cult Classic", is at work on a new book on Brownrigg and his films ("Don't Look in the Basement" aka "The Forgotten", "Scum of the Earth" aka "Poor White Trash 2", "Don't Open the Door!", and "Keep My Grave Open" aka "The House where Hell Froze Over"). Let's hope it comes out soon, as his first book (FAB Press) is a masterpiece of horror journalism.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bad Craziness

15 Albums that make you want to Fuck Shit Up:

  • Black Flag: Damaged (1981)
  • Dwarves: Blood Guts & Pussy (1989)
  • Slayer: Reign in Blood (1986)
  • Negative Approach: Self Titled 7" (1982)
  • Napalm Death : Scum (1986)
  • Misfits: Earth A.D. (1983)
  • Pig Destroyer: Prowler in the Yard (2001)
  • Exodus: Bonded by Blood (1985)
  • Poison Idea: Record Collectors are Pretentious Assholes (1984)
  • Minor Threat: Minor Threat/In My Eyes 12" (1981)
  • Ramones: It's Alive! (1978)
  • Repulsion: Horrified (1986)
  • SS Decontrol: Get it Away (1983)
  • Turbonegro: Never is Forever (1994)
  • Dead Boys: Young, Loud, and Snotty (1977)

Further suggestions, droogies?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Film Review: She Killed in Ecstacy

Believe it or not, there once was a time when Spain's trashmeister Jess Franco actually made good films. From around 1968 to 1975, he had decent budgets, great exotic locales for shooting, and a unique, almost psychedelic approach to cinematography and editing. Not to mention some seriously wacked-out soundtracks and many gorgeous (and even classy) actresses. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the trilogy of German-language films he shot in 1970 for bigshot producer Artur Brauner of CCC-Filmkunst Productions in West Germany. These three films, "The Devil Came from Akasava", "Vampyros Lesbos", and "She Killed in Ecstacy", all released in 1971, gave posthumous stardom to doomed Spanish beauty Soledad Miranda, Franco's first "muse", who died in a tragic car accident in August of 1970. Her mysterious allure, her ability to be classy, slutty, hippy-dippy, cruel, and romantic all at once gave her an onscreen presence Franco would never capture again (though he came close with the early films of Lina Romay, Miranda's official successor). Though "Vampyros Lesbos" is the most famous of the trilogy, in my opinion "She Killed in Ecstacy" is where the Franco/Miranda pairing jelled most intensely.

Much of "She Killed in Ecstacy" is narrated in a voiceover by Miranda, who plays the unnamed wife of experimental research scientist Doctor Johnson. In a series of flashbacks that are shown while Miranda stands on the edge of a cliff wearing a totally groovy outfit, her long brown hair blowing in the wind, we see her husband (played by Fred Williams, also in "The Devil...") being denounced and ultimately disbarred by a medical board of four doctors (all of the actors appear in all 3 movies, and one of them is played by Franco himself). His peers call him "insane", "immoral", "unethical" and, finally, "an animal", because he experimented on human fetuses (or something like that). Later they send some thugs to destroy his lab and rough up Soledad. Hubby goes totally insane, mumbling the words of the board over and over in a semi-catatonic state. His wife moves them to a deserted island off the coast, and they hole up in a huge fortess-like castle (where they got the money for this on a researcher's salary is never explained, but then again this is Franco). She tries to bring him around, but to no avail; while she is sleeping he slits his wrists. Her naked histrionics upon finding him in the bathroom are worth the price of admission alone. This marks the end of the flashbacks; from here on in it's all Miranda exacting her own special brand of revenge on those who destroyed her perfect marriage.

Before I go any further, I must mention that as in the other two films of the trilogy (most notably "Vampyros Lesbos"), the score is provided by Manfred Hubler and Sigfried Schwab; their psychedelic jazz gives the film a feel all it's own, and the music actually lends the movie more of an action film sensibility than that of a horror movie. Seeing Soledad chop guys up accompanied by a Funkadelicized jam is jarring to say the least. She first poses as a prostitute (looking great in a black cape and mesh stockings) in a local bar, luring Dr. Walker (Franco regular, and the original Dr. Orloff, Howard Vernon) up to his hotel room. There the great moralist turns out to be a spineless sexual masochist. Soledad does a bit of topless domination before pulling a stilleto out of her garter belt and slashing his throat. She then castrates him (off-screen). She leaves a note at the scene (inexplicably in English!) saying "1 animal is dead; 3 more will die". Unlike most Franco films, the pace is fairly quick and the running time short, so right away we see the sexy avenger in a bell bottomed tan pantsuit and blond bouiffant wig, posing as a rich and bored tourist at the spa where Dr. Crawford (the voluptuous Ewa Stromberg, Miranda's nemesis in "Vampyros Lesbos") is staying. She befriends the doctor, and they head upstairs for a drink. The uptight Dr. Crawford (of course) is really a horny lesbian, and the two go at it in an awkward coupling. While they are groping about, Franco inserts shots of Miranda and her husband making love to show us where her mind is actually at. At the moment of climax, Miranda picks up a zebra-striped pillow (this movie is groovy!) and smothers her lover. She killed in ecstacy indeed!

At this point the other two doctors have figured out what's going on, and go to the police chief, played by German TV legend Horst Tappert. He basically blows them off, saying "a dead guy can't kill anybody". All throughout the murders, we are also treated to some creepy scenes of Soledad lying in bed and cuddling her dead husband, promising revenge and that they will be together again soon. How she got his dead body there, and why it shows no sign of decay, is not explained, but again, this is Franco we're talking about. Logic totally breaks down in the death scene of the third doctor (Paul Muller of "Lesbos"); she pursues him in a church, and then outdoors as herself, before finally confronting him in a cafe. Suddenly they're in a hotel room and she has on a long blonde wig and sexy lingerie. Anyhow, they have the film's only real erotic moment, as he explores her small but perfect breasts and feels her up. Just as they get going, she comes up with a pair of scissors and emotionlessly stabs him in the back of the head. The blood running out of his mouth onto her naked thigh is a great shot.

Finally it's Franco's turn to die. He finds out about the 3rd murder and frantically races home, only to find his wife on the living room floor with her throat slashed. He passes out. When he wakes up, he is in Miranda's house, half-naked and tied to a chair. She enters the room dressed like Vampirella, brandishing a wicked-looking dagger. She then proceeds to give the greasy haired, sweaty Franco a lap dance, teasing him with the knife. Finally, she builds it up and starts slicing his chest and licking up the blood, eventually plunging the knife deep into his heart over and over. She then runs out to her car, where her husband's corpse is waiting in the passenger seat. Pursued by the police, who have been alerted God knows how, she drives for the cliff and over the edge they go. Sadly, Franco couldn't afford an explosion, so the climactic suicide and reunion of the doomed couple looks pretty damn cheap. Some pat words from the police chief, and "FIN".
Overall, this is one of Franco's best films, because he keeps the story simple, the shots are fairly normal (even his notorious zoom insanity is toned down), the music is great, the locations are beautiful, the gore is minimal (and thus not fake), and the pacing is not the usual snail's pace. Mostly, though, it's great because of Solidad Miranda. Her presence is astonishing; doomed, tragic, cold, and relentless. And of course hot, hot, hot.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

RIP Ron Asheton

Ron Asheton was one of the true unsung guitar heroes in the history of rock. His psychedelic, jazz-tinged wah-terror fueled the first 2 Stooges albums, and his slashing minimalistic chords basically defined proto-punk, influencing tons of bratty kids in the 70s and 80s to form bands before they really knew how to play. Despite his bizarre fascination with Nazi imagery (his New Order project was incredibly maligned and misunderstood, though good musically), the overall consensus was that he was the most 'normal' of the Stooges, neither destructive to others or to self (he was the only one not addicted to smack in the 70s). He even had the class to trade the guitar for bass on "Raw Power" after Iggy insisted on bringing in James Williamson. Maybe he needed the money, but maybe he was just a cool guy. I recently heard a bootleg of their 'comeback' tour from a few years back and he was as wailing as ever, jamming out on every song from both albums. I guess it's ironic that the only 2 surviving members of the original lineup (Iggy and brother Scott Asheton) were the biggest fuckups back in the day. The Stooges are nominated this year for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so let's hope justice prevails and Ron gets his revenge on the world of rock from beyond the grave.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Overkill (LA): "Triumph of the Will"

In 1985, SST Records was flying high. With albums and tours coming on strong by label luminaries Black Flag, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Saccharine Trust, and Husker-Du, the indie was beginning to attract major critical and even commercial attention; just around the corner they would go on to sign big names like Sonic Youth, Bad Brains, and Dinosaur Jr. However, label owners Greg Ginn, Chuck Dukowski, Mugger, and Joe Carducci weren't content to let indie rock and hardcore rule the label. They took profits from many of their bigger selling acts and funded a number of records which stood in total opposition to the current trends dominating underground music in the 80s. In 1985, the label released low-key releases by such bands as DC3 (featuring Dez of Black Flag), SWA (with Chuck Dukowski), Saint Vitus, Wurm, Tom Troccoli's Dog (with Greg Ginn on bass), and Overkill. These bands, "born too late" (to quote the almighty Vitus), were all throwbacks to the classic rock and metal that the band members were into before they got involved in the hardcore scene of the early 80s. Critically reviled at the time (and to this day by many), these records sold poorly to say the least and, save Vitus, all of the bands lasted only a short while. In fact, a number of the releases ended up being posthumous statements of careers that might-have-been. However, on closer inspection and with some hindsight, one can see that these records, with their stripped-down sound and mixing of genres, presaged many of the aspects of today's Stoner Rock and Doom Metal scenes.

Overkill are one of the most forgotten of these bands. Starting out in 1981 as a metal-tinged hardcore band, the band featured drummer and chief songwriter Kurt Markham (who would later be a founding member of psych-rock band DC3), and vocalist Merrill Ward, a Black Flag roadie and original member of Nig Heist, SST's infamous "Porn Rock" collective. Thefirst Overkill single, "Hell's Getting Hotter", released in 1982 on SST, was more hardcore than metal, with all 4 songs under 2 minutes apiece. That year the band also took part in rock history when they opened for San Francisco's Trauma; it was at that gig that James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich approached Trauma's Cliff Burton to join Metallica. Infighting over Merrill's bizarre behavior (he would often light his balls on fire during performances) and participation in Nig Heist led to the vocalist being sacked in late 1982.

The music that would appear on the full-length "Triumph of the Will" was recorded in 1983 at a metal studio in LA, at the height of the thrash metal explosion. Markham, however, refused to follow trends, and while the songs are all pretty fast, they don't have the trademark palm muted riffing, shredding solos, epic song structures, and topical lyrics of the fledgling genre. Instead, what we got was metal-influenced hardcore, with all the fat nicely trimmed. When the music was recorded, their vocalist was Scott Kidd, who was fired in the middle of the session (before any vocals were recorded) for not being able to write decent lyrics, and for being a bonafide glammy cock rocker on stage, which the down and dirty members of the band were definitely not into. The tapes languished on the shelf and the band broke up. Markham started up DC3 with Black Flagger Dez Cadena, Merrill joined up with Flag's Chuck Dukowski in the despised SWA, and bassist Ron Cordy went on to fame (but not fortune) in Metal Blade's sleazy and cheezy Bitch.

In 1984, the band got it together again, realising the tapes were too good to waste, so SST got Merrill to provide lyrics and record vocals with SST producers Spot and Joe Carducci, who also remixed the music with their typical "less is more" philosophy. Released in early 1985, the result is an excellent platter of molten rock/metal/hardcore that is difficult to categorize; it's not thrash or even the "crossover" that was so popular at the time, but rather a stripped down, metallic biker rock. Most importantly the songs are catchy as all hell, with great guitar playing throughout (the riffs may be punkish, but the tone is definitely metal), and vocals that are like a less raspy (and more on-key) cross between Iggy and Lemmy. "Victimized", "Ladies in Leather", "Head On" (dig the Stooges reference), and "American Dream" (co-written by Greg Ginn) are the highlights, and "No Holds Barred" was even inexplicably released on Metal Blade's Metal Massacre 2 compilation. With its distictly untrendy sound and lyrics, and SST's typically offensive cover art and title, the album was a total bomb and the band didn't even reform to promote it.
"Triumph of the Will" (never originally released on CD) was out of print till 1992, when SST released a CD version under the moniker "Overkill LA", to avoid confusion with the immensely popular and immensely lame NYC thrash band Overkill (who had a trademark on the name). I found my copy, natch, in a bargain bin at my local store for about 4 bucks. It's definitely worth tracking down, perhaps on EBay, as SSTs Superstore no longer carries it. Like the other outre SST bands of the mid-80s, Overkill flew their freak flag high. I paid attention, even if nobody else did.